Rising risk of wildfires across UK from climate crisis, scientists warn
Once-in-a-century weather extremes that pose the highest danger of wildfires could occur every year in parts of the UK as the climate changes, scientists have said.
A study led by the University of Reading aimed to predict how the danger of blazes taking hold would increase as a result of rising temperatures and less summer rainfall in the UK in the coming decades.
It found parts of eastern and southern England may face the highest threat level – referred to as “exceptional danger” – on up to several days a year by 2080 if the world continues to emit high levels of greenhouse gases. Today, those conditions occur once every 50-100 years.
Days with exceptional danger would become more commonplace across the UK by 2080, and those with a “very high” danger of wildfires could rise significantly, even in traditionally wetter parts of the country.
The rise in fire danger is predominantly due to hotter temperatures, less rainfall, lower humidity and stronger winds expected across the UK as a result of global heating, the researchers said.
The findings highlight the importance of taking the threat of wildfires – which can pose environmental, health and economic risks – seriously in the UK, as the problem is likely to grow.
Prof Nigel Arnell, a climate scientist at the University of Reading who led the research, said: “Extremely hot and dry conditions that are perfect for large wildfires are currently rare in the UK, but climate change will make them more and more common.
“In future decades, wildfires could pose as much of a threat to the UK as they currently do in the south of France or parts of Australia. This increased fire danger will threaten wildlife and the environment, as well as lives and property, yet it is currently underestimated as a threat in many parts of the UK.”
There are thousands of wildfires in the UK each year, which largely affect arable, grassland, mountain and heath habitats rather than forests, but most are small, covering less than a few acres or even just a few square metres.
Wildfires need a source of ignition, which can come from human activity and is hard to predict. So the risk is measured by the likelihood that a fire would develop after a spark – a danger that is affected by weather conditions, the scientists said.
Their study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, calculated what the fire danger might be in coming decades using the latest climate models for the UK. They looked at a future with significant action to cut carbon emissions and one in which pollution is high.
With high emissions, exceptional danger days would become more commonplace across the UK, occurring up to nearly four days a year by 2080 in the worst-hit area, the east of England.
The number of days with a very high danger of fire would increase significantly in all parts of the UK. Southern and eastern England would be the worst affected, with the average number of very high danger days more than quadrupling to 111 days in south-east England and 121 days in the east of England.
But the West Midlands would also see the number of danger days rise, from 13 to 96, and wetter areas could face soaring risk, including Wales (up from five to 53), Northern Ireland (two to 20) and west Scotland (three to 16).
The study also found that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would curb global warming to about 2C above pre-industrial levels “reduces very substantially” the increase in fire danger but does not eliminate it.